Future Perfect: How Will Technology Shape Humanity and Vice Versa

Dec 15, 2017

It seems like every day we hear about a new technology that we’re told will change our lives.  But with the push toward the latest and greatest new gizmo, is something important being overlooked?   A recent symposium at Virginia Tech explored the question of what it means to be human in an increasingly technological world.  

Exploring the future of tech at "Tech;" Ashley Shew Heflin, Philip Olson, and Rebecca Hester
Credit Edmèe Rodriguez-Hasler

Organizers of the conference refer to it as ‘Exploring Tech at (Virginia) Tech” or how does a school devoted to the development of new technologies see their impact and meaning.

Daniel Breslau, who teaches social science, says it’s an intellectual inquiry that ramped up a couple of hundred years ago when technological advances were on the rise. “It’s the human powers of reason that will allow us to continually improve our condition to transcend the physical limitations of our bodies of our environment, of our planet, and that, that will always provide solutions to problems.”

And, as in any rigorous debate, there’s the counterpoint:  “If we keep on pursuing science and technology to solve all our problem those will take on a life of their own in a way that’ s actually alien to what makes us human.”

That’s the argument this group of professors, who all teach in Tech’s Department of Science Technology and Society, were there to explore to explore.

Assistant Professor, Philip Olson says, “We need to expand what we’re talking about so we’re not just talking about technologies that we’re making. We’re talking about the worlds and the societies that we’re building.”

One of Olson’s areas of expertise is drone ethics. It’s an aspect of that fast growing technology that he feels is being ignored.  “The humanists and the social scientists have to be kind of aggressive and say,  ‘Listen! Listen! There’s some interesting conversations to be had about this.'”

Ashley Shew Heflin teaches philosophy of technology.  “I think what we often want to say, ‘What makes us particularly human is technology and tool use.’ I don’t think that’s it at all.”  She has a new book out on the topic called, “Animal Construction and Technological Knowledge.” 

“So if we talk about the sort of structures ants build, that termites build, relative to their body size, and what we individually build, they’re kind of more impressive,” Heflin notes. She says it’s the same with beavers, “And the way they ‘wreck’ ecosystems,  and we see they’re pretty good at that too, but we consider them ‘nature’ so we can’t consider their projects as constituting knowledge and technology in important ways, so it allows us to continue to disrespect the environment and other intelligences around us.”

Assistant Professor, Rebecca Hester says these are “issues that ‘Science and Technology Studies’ wants to bring to the foreground. She focuses on the ‘ethics of health’ and ‘biosecurity.’  “There are very few incentives for bringing forward questions of ethics and politics when so much of the political economy of higher education is funded by private corporations or government funders, who have real interest in developing these kinds of technologies. That’s a significant too. It’s not that scientists don’t want to have these discussions, but the incentives are not there for them to have them, or to take them ‘on board’ in meaningful ways."

There may soon be more ways for students to explore this issues at Virginia Tech.  Administrators are planning to expand the program and create a major in Science and Technology in Society.

Daniel Breslau says, “If all goes well, it will be for students who are interested in science and technology and are going to be working in any number of areas where they are not scientific or technological specialists, but they will have to deal with these questions as part of their day to day life. They’ll have to make decisions about the relationship of the public to new scientific knowledge or new technologies.” 

And, he emphasizes, “There are many, many kinds of roll that people have in which they’ll constantly be dealing with those questions.”

The plan is to enroll students in the new major for spring, 2019.